The horse race? Oh, that's incidental My Lady's Manor is mainly a social event

April 14, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

When you've been going to the My Lady's Manor steeplechase in Monkton for 40 years, perhaps you don't pay as much attention to the horses as you once did.

And so it was yesterday afternoon that Henry M. "Skip" Wright found himself discussing the splendid service he'd received recently at a hotel in Geneva, Switzerland.

A purse had been stolen. The hotel staff had sprung to action to search for the purse.

"There were chefs, people -- all over the neighborhood," Mr. Wright told his friend, Oliver, as five horses raced along the rolling, Harford County hills in the distance.

Such was some of the conversation at the sun-drenched 86th running of My Lady's Manor, the yearly steeplechase that is as much a social event as it is a horse race.

An estimated 5,500 people gathered for it yesterday. They arrived hours before, many gathering at genteel tailgate parties, standing around linen-covered picnic tables.

They ate fresh salad off clear glass plates while sipping red wine. They sampled international cheeses. They wore expensive casual leather shoes with thick soles that still looked good with mud on them.

Steeplechases began in Ireland and England and came to the United States in the 1860s. My Lady's Manor is a three-mile race over 16 wooden jumps, some as high as 4 feet.

Tom Walton has been going to the steeplechases for 13 years. My Lady's Manor is one of three races -- and three such scenes -- each April in Maryland that make up the triple crown. The others are the Grand National and the Hunt Cup.

"Winter is a tough time," said Mr. Walton, a food broker. "This is is a way into the warm weather."

He was standing next to a 1955 mint-condition Cadillac convertible owned by Mr. Wright.

A gracious man with light blue eyes and a quick smile, Mr. Wright is a liquor distiller who distributes his own line of "Chesapeake" gin, vodka, bourbon, scotch and rum. And he's apparently quite good at it. "If it's rainy and really cold, we use the 1952 Bentley," he said.

Not everyone came in vintage convertibles.

In what amounts to a sort of steeplechase caste system, My Lady's Manor offers the "General Parking" area.

There, a good quarter-mile downhill from where Mr. Wright and others paid $75 for "Subscriber" parking, revelers parked for $25.

"This is the pit," said brick mason Al Balcerak, holding a can of Coors Light. "This is where it all happens."

A hunk of venison grilled on a Weber nearby. He and his 30 friends had yet to throw on the mako shark, which was defrosting on the hood of a nearby pickup.

They gathered around a picnic table that someone had hauled in.

Frisbees, footballs, baseballs -- not to mention the occasional whiff of marijuana -- drifted through the air.

Shortly before race time -- about 3: 15 p.m. -- many of the "General Parking" people made their way uphill, where, joined by the subscribers, they walked a short way to the start of the race.

There, jockeys dressed in silks carried their saddles and parted the crowds. One of them, J. D. Gillet, had flown in from California to ride in the race.

Like many others, Mr. Gillet greeted friends in the crowd.

He's the nephew of former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings, who every year plays host to perhaps the ultimate race party at his house next to the course.

This year, Mr. Tydings' guests dined on crab soup and brie. They sipped Bloody Marys while listening to a bagpipe player.

"My nephew says he's going to win the big race," said Mr. Tydings, wearing a green checkered suit.

And that's just what the nephew did, holding off a challenger by one length.

It was a finish not missed by Mr. Wright -- the Geneva traveler -- who did manage to wrap up the hotel theft story prior to that final stretch.

"Can you imagine a hotel in the United States? They would have told you to call 911," he said.

Walking along with his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Schooner -- "Come on, Schoons" -- he was the picture of happiness.

"You talk to people for hours," Mr. Wright said, smiling.

"And then you see a five-minute race."

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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